One of the hot topics for aficionados of Barça during the summer was how will the team line up this season. Especially with the arrival of Cesc Fàbregas, it was reckoned by many that Guardiola would revert to Johan Cruyff's famous 3-4-3 system as a way to incorporate Cesc while still finding space for Xavi and Iniesta. So far this has proved to be the case. However it always amazes me that most commentators refer to this 3-4-3 line up as more risky than the traditional 4-3-3. At first sight 3-4-3 does appear to be a more attack minded line up. However the conventional way to describe the line-ups do not describe the same thing.
4-3-3 only describes the defensive system that Barça use when they need to defend. However, 3-4-3 describes an attacking line-up. In reality when Barça have to defend they always seek to get their players into a 4-3-3 formation. This is important as Barça are a very attack minded team and tend to dominate possession of the ball. What is crucial then is how the team is aligned at the moment when they lose possession of the ball. For this is when the team is most vulnerable to a counter attack.
It is therefore better to compare the two attacking line-ups that Barça tend to use. In this case 4-3-3 becomes much more a 2-3-2-3 line-up. While 3-4-3 is more accurately described as a 3-1-2-1-3 system. From this it is obvious that the so-called 4-3-3 line-up as actually as practised by Barça is the more risky option. With this system, when the team lose possession they only have two defenders in place, while with the other system they always have three defenders in place. In other words, 3-4-3 is the more secure defensively.
It may be easier to appreciate the difference if we put names to the line-ups. First the traditional 4-3-3 or more accurately, 2-3-2-3 system. Recently this has featured the following players, starting from the back.
When the team lose the ball, Abidal and Alves move back to form a back four with Piqué and Mascheranno, while Iniesta and Xavi also move back to line up alongside Busquets, thus creating the traditional 4-3-3 defensive set-up.
Now for the 3-4-3 or 3-1-2-1-3 system. This is how it looks with the following players, again starting from the back.
Mascheranno Busquets Fàbregas Messi
In this case, when Barça lose the ball, Busquets would try to get back as quickly as possible to join the back three, while Fàbregas would also move back to play alongside Xavi and Iniesta. Once again the team is organized in their traditional defensive 4-3-3 set-up.
So, as far as I can see, the so-called 3-4-3 line-up is the more secure defensively, as the team always has three defenders in place. The other advantage is that the diamond shaped midfield allows Guardiola to play Fàbregas alongside Xavi and Iniesta. There would appear though to be two downsides to this system. One was shown in the first half of their away match against Valencia. There the home team attacked with skill, speed and numbers and caused Barça all kinds of problems and managed to score two goals. What this shows to me is that against some teams, Guardiola may have to use four defenders. The crucial point is that the two full backs have to stay back. In such a situation Barça's attacking line-up would be 4-1-2-3. The other possible weakness of 3-4-3 is that a lot seems to depend on the use of Fàbregas as the apex of the midfield diamond. His skill, movement and understanding with Messi has been one of the keys to Barça's attacking threat this season. Against Sporting, with Fàbregas injured, they tried Pedro in that role, with only limited success. I'm not sure who else in the squad can fulfil this role with the same effectiveness as Fàbregas. But it will be interesting to see if Guardiola sticks with this system while Cesc is out injured. As usual interesting times ahead for Barça.